Thomas Steenburg went into the British Columbia wilderness in April 1986, and he didn’t come out again until Halloween. He was looking for Sasquatch.
One day in early summer, the 25-year-old, on several months’ leave from the army, was searching for prints in the shoulder of a forest service road northeast of Whistler. As he scanned the ground, he heard a noise. Suddenly, something huge charged at him. He started shimmying up a cluster of thin trees, but claws grabbed him by the backpack and dragged him toward the ground. “For whatever reason, she let go, and I climbed right back up those trees,” Steenburg says. Turning his head, Steenburg saw that the creature was no Sasquatch, but a grizzly bear. The bear shuffled and huffed around the base of the trees before lumbering toward deeper forest. Two of the bear’s claws left puncture wounds in Steenburg’s lower back-he still has the scars today.
He was shaken but not ready to abandon the hunt. A few weeks later, an American couple said they’d seen something pace through their camp on the bank of the Chehalis River. Steenburg went to the site and found the best Sasquatch tracks he had ever seen. “That sealed my fate,” he says. “If it wasn’t for that find, I might have given up on the Sasquatch mystery and gone on to what my ex-wife used to call ‘more important things.'”
Today, Steenburg drives a dark-blue SUV with “Sasquatch Research” and his phone number printed in big letters on the side. A kind of freelance Sasquatch stalker, he runs a one-man cryptozoology operation in Mission, B.C.
Broken down into its component Greek parts, cryptozoology means “the study of hidden animals.” Hinted at by folklore, legend and eyewitness accounts, the objects of cryptozoologists’ dogged pursuits are creatures-called cryptids-not proven to exist. (“Not yet proven,” cryptozoologists hasten to add.) Famous examples include the elusive, white-haired yeti of the Himalayas (a.k.a. the Abominable Snowman); the long, rippling serpent of B.C.’s Lake Okanagan, Ogopogo; the spiny, goat-sucking reptile chupacabra of the Americas; and, of course, the hairy bipedal hominid Bigfoot, called Sasquatch in Canada.
Cryptozoology is young enough-and fringe enough-that to even call it a field is controversial. There’s no governing body monitoring the practice; you can’t earn a degree in it; and, except in rare cases of oddball private patronage, no one will pay you to do it. The only requirement for being a cryptozoologist is to call yourself one. As a hobby, it’s hunkered down where science and pseudo-science meet.
Yet, when modern cryptozoology emerged in the mid-20th century, its proponents kept up a tone of academic seriousness. These researchers want their work to be appreciated as a valid offshoot of orthodox zoology, rather than a pursuit of the paranormal. They hunt for evidence, hoping to find definitive proof that will earn their cryptid-and maybe themselves-a place in mainstream science.
“Timekeeping is the last thing a Sasquatch investigator is capable of doing,” declares John Kirk, president of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club (BCSCC). Things aren’t going as planned at the club’s annual barbecue. A rogue bear was sighted at their usual venue in Sasquatch Provincial Park, so the BCSCC has settled for a manicured patch of grass at an RV park closer to Harrison Hot Springs. Worse, the guy who’s supposed to bring the meat has gone AWOL. Finally, up pulls an open-air utility terrain vehicle, and a cooler of hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages is carried from the trailer in back. The club’s VP and webmaster fires up a portable grill, and the annual general meeting of cryptozoologists kicks off.
Dressed in camo flood pants and a sleeveless black T-shirt, with a baseball cap over his long hair, Kirk looks like he’s in a Harry Potter spinoff where Professor Snape cuts loose on vacation. I ask him how much time he devotes to cryptozoology. “Too much, eh?” he asks his wife beside him. Between staying up to date on the literature, writing his own articles and handling the club’s newsletter, he says it’s about five hours. A week? I ask. No, he says, a day. Not counting time in the field.
On shows like the Discovery Channel’s Finding Bigfoot, investigators thrash and bellow their way through the woods, always just missing a cryptid encounter. It’s Sasquatch cast as a more dangerous Polkaroo. For serious researchers, the reality is more mundane: drive into the backcountry or to the site of an alleged sighting, and pick over trees, mud, bushes and logs. The aim isn’t to encounter the creature face to face, but rather to find evidence of its presence: footprints, hair, tissue, Sasquatch scat. Kirk might spend a whole day combing a small patch of woods; interesting finds might come only once or twice in a lifetime.